The look and feel of the tournament had transformed dramatically in the intervening years -- extra scale and polish on the event-production side, a sweeping visual update to the Summoner’s Rift map. Plus, there was the string of host cities in Paris, London, Brussels, and Berlin to replace the LAN-party scruffiness of 2011’s title bout. Still, the essential draw hadn’t changed one bit. A field of teams ready to square off, each one hungry to prove themselves the best in the world.
European powerhouse Fnatic secured that first Championship, admittedly an easier feat in those days before the Asian esports scene fully embraced League of Legends. A Taiwanese team, Taipei Assassins, would prevail in 2012. Then starting in the 2013 season, Korea all but built a penthouse apartment for itself atop the winner’s podium. Korea’s SKTelecom T1 K hoisted the Summoner’s Cup in 2013. Then yet another Korean team, Samsung White, took their turn in 2014. Going into Worlds 2015, however, the outcome appeared less certain. For the first time in years, Korea wasn’t the obvious bet going into the tournament.
China as a region was ascendant, buoyed by an exodus of Korean pros lured to the scene, in part, with salary offers that only the most loyal holdouts could refuse. To appreciate the extent of China’s commitment to securing top talent, one must only consider the case of SKT T1’s world-renowned mid-laner Lee "Faker" Sang-hyeok, who reportedly turned down contract offers by Chinese companies valued as high as 1 million dollars. The import strategy seemed to be paying off, as China’s Edward Gaming, led by Heo "PawN" Won-seok (formerly of the 2014 Worlds victors Samsung White) and venerated Chinese jungler Ming "Clearlove" Kai, managed to defeat perennial favourites SKT T1 in a nail-biting 3-2 Final at the 2015 Mid-Season Invitational.
China wasn’t the only region desperate to pry Korea’s death grip from the Summoner’s Cup either. Europe had contenders of its own to send into battle: an intimidating Fnatic lineup that had stampeded 18-0 through the EU LCS Summer Split and taken SKT T1 to a full five games at MSI, as well as an Origen squad packed with Worlds-tested veterans.
“As a diehard European fanboy, I think I speak for every caster and most European fans, Fnatic was the hope,” recalls EU LCS caster and analyst Martin “Deficio” Lynge. “Fnatic was the team where, after the 18-0 season, I came into the tournament with the feeling that if Europe was ever going to upset Korea, this would be the year.”
Could the balance of power in international play finally be shifting? Would China carry the momentum from its MSI victory forward into Worlds? Would the most stacked Fnatic roster in the team’s history be able to capitalise on its European home-crowd advantage to make a legitimate bid for the Summoner’s Cup? Or would the unapologetically confident CLG from North America cash in the promise of its potential and build on the region’s Quarterfinals finish the previous year.
As the strongest League of Legends teams from around the globe converged on the Le Dock Pullman in Paris, France, for the Group Stage, esports fans the world over leaned forward in anticipation.
GREAT FALL OF CHINA
Few could have expected the degree to which the teams representing China would self-destruct at Worlds 2015. If all the analysts and fans who expected big things from China had ripped up their bracket predictions and flung the pieces in the air simultaneously, it would’ve been a confetti shower to rival the closing ceremonies.
The bad news for China started almost immediately. Day 1, in Game 1, in fact. Fnatic shot out to an early gold lead over China’s 3rd seed Invictus Gaming. Decisive lane-swapping, oodles of free farm for Seong "Huni" Hoon Heo's Hecarim, and effective ganks around deep vision helped start the snowball that would ultimately roll over the top of Invictus, prompting the only match surrender of Worlds 2015. Invictus was only the 3rd seed, admittedly. The lion’s share of expectations for the region lay on the shoulders of EDG and LGD Gaming, the latter of whom would also face a European team, Origen, in its first contest of the Group Stage.
The second the Shockwave landed, a roar went up from the Paris crowd and fans jumped to their feet. Both Origen and Fnatic would enjoy special enthusiasm from the French crowd, as each team had a French native on the roster. Even though Europe’s hopes initially rested primarily on Fnatic, the resounding statement made by Origen in their opening victory over LGD showed that the region hosting Worlds 2015 might just have more than one legitimate contender.
“That [win over LGD] was perfect for us because, going into the game, we were expecting it to be the hardest,” says xPeke looking back on the tournament one year later. “That game was the decider. If we would've lost, it probably would've snowballed into us playing worse in the following games. But the fact that we were able to go equal with them all game and actually decide what we wanted to do in the game and they were the ones reacting, it just started to make us more and more confident.”
With China’s #1 seed suddenly appearing as likely to blossom as a deep-roasted coffee bean, all eyes shifted to the keenly awaited rematch between the region’s 2nd-seed EDG and Korean raid boss SKT. Alas for EDG fans, the team failed to conjure the teamplay magic that helped them take down SKT to win the Mid-Season Invitational earlier in the year. EDG would go on to drop both of their Group Stage games against SKT, down a whopping 20K gold at the end of the first meeting. The second meeting was a 23-minute stomp by SKT, amassing 16 kills to EDG’s 4. Of the Chinese teams competing in Worlds 2015, only EDG would make it out of Groups to the Knockout Stage. EDG’s thrusters would ultimately run out of fuel upon reaching the Quarterfinals where the team suffered a 3-0 pummelling at the hands of Fnatic.
“We had so many expectations for China,” says Deficio. “They didn't live up to it. And we've now learned that it's because the game is more defined around being in a team, communication, macro, and not individual mechanics, as it has been in the past.” The exodus of Korean pros to China and the resulting language barriers made team coordination a liability.
“Everybody remembers how bad China was because they fell from grace,” says Trevor "Quickshot" Henry. “They’d won MSI, they dethroned SKT, and that obviously elevated their position, which obviously made the crash and the underperformance even more notable. Also, because every single team could adapt to lane swaps and you could see clear growth throughout the two weeks of Group Stage, and we just didn't see that progression from the Chinese teams. That was a bit of a shock. Even Wildcard teams could step up and show that they could play with the big boys in the early game at times, and China couldn't.”
North America and Europe have historically struggled to challenge Asia’s top teams. Accordingly the success metric at international tournaments gradually shifted to EU-versus-NA bragging rights. If you can’t be a World Champion, why not shoot for a ‘Best in the West’ consolation prize? On this score, Worlds 2014 proved a demoralizing tournament for EU fans who had to watch their teams not only fail to make it out of Groups but also suffer the indignity of Alliance’s loss to Brazilian Wildcard team KaBuM!, a meme that fans volley back and forth to this day.
In the first week of Groups, both Europe and North America seemed to be holding their own. If anything, NA looked like they might even have a slight edge. Cloud9, who’d barely qualified for Worlds after tying for 7th place in the NA LCS and then pulling off two electrifying reverse-sweeps during the Regional Qualifiers, delivered an unexpected loss to Fnatic when the teams met toward the end of Week 1. C9’s top laner Balls even pulled off a Pentakill with Darius just to rub it in.
Nobody realized during Week 1 how to prevent Cloud9 from winning
The boys in blue-and-white would go undefeated Week 1, snowballing games with hard-hitting siege comps. C9’s Jensen (then still playing under the handle “Incarnati0n”) found success on a Veigar pocket pick. The Tiny Master of Evil’s Event Horizon paid dividends zoning enemies away from mid-lane towers as the team assembled for devastating fast-pushes. Meanwhile, CLG looked as though they’d escape Group A no problem since, with the exception of KOO Tigers, it appeared to feature the fewest marquee opponents. But then Week 2 of Groups arrived and the lake ice splintered beneath NA’s feet. It’s a week NA fans would love to forget. “Yeah, I think it's definitely one of the worst times for North American League,” says NA LCS caster David “Phreak” Turley. “We were like, ‘Oh my gosh, we suck.’ Europe was happy to make fun of us as well, of course, but that's deserved. I think it's the worst NA had ever done at Worlds. How could it not be when you have two teams in position to go to Playoffs and then all of your teams lose every single game they play that week?”
If you imagine Cloud9’s undefeated Week 1 sending them floating upward and onto a literal cloud, their 0-4 freefall back to earth would be the most jarring for any of the NA teams. So what went wrong? “For Cloud9, they just had so many weaknesses,” says Quickshot. “Nobody realized during Week 1 how to prevent Cloud9 from winning: basically stopping siege comps. Tristana ban, Veigar ban. Once you got rid of Cloud9's ability to siege, they went from being able to win games to looking lost on the Rift.”
The particular Week 2 Achilles’ heel for CLG remains more ambiguous, but the most popular line of analysis hinges on the old proverb ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.’
“I think it was cockiness,” says Quickshot, “You had a group of players in CLG who thought they were so clearly better than everybody else and they did pretty well in Week 1. And they got a bit ahead of themselves. Famously, [Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaha] going on about how he's going to win World Championships and CLG are the best team in the world. They had just won their first NA split and I think they got ahead of themselves.”
CLG’s top-laner Darshan disagrees, pointing instead to the team’s shoddy preparation leading up to the tournament. “Overconfidence was definitely the furthest thing from our problems,” he assures me. “The biggest issue was our productivity during our bootcamp in Korea. My standout memory of Worlds 2015 is the disappointment I felt in regards to our preparation. When we got upset by paiN Gaming, we had already been kicked out of the Group and our match essentially meant nothing towards our standings. As a result, we as a team did not play that game to our full potential, which is definitely disappointing from us.”
TSM would go on to finish with a hard-swallowing 1-5 Group Stage record, a worse score line than Brazil’s Wildcard team paiN Gaming and only slightly better than the Bangkok Titans. Though in fairness, despite the “Wildcard” label regrettably coming to be interpreted as synonymous with “sub-par” due to the smoother qualifying path, paiN delivered one of the most inspiring Wildcard performances in the tournament’s history, taking games off both Taiwan’s Flash Wolves and NA’s CLG in convincing fashion.
Watching paiN’s victories in the Group Stages, Quickshot recalls it being one of the first times that he truly believed an IWC region was closing the gap. “Watching paiN on an individual level, watching them grow throughout the Group Stages and then take down CLG in a strong display,” he says, “it just shows that a region like Brazil that has an incredibly healthy competitive circuit [can compete at the highest level]. It was hopeful, it was exciting to see.”
TSM had to bid farewell to more than just its hopes of reaching the Knockout Stage. In one of the most emotional moments of Worlds 2015, TSM’s legendary top-laner Dyrus, a fixture of every World Championship going back to Season 1, reflected on his retirement from professional play. Voice quavering and biting back tears, Dyrus apologized to fans for letting them down and “not being able to perform when it most mattered”. The assembled crowd in Paris chanted his name in a rousing show of support. It was the end of an era. TSM’s remaining lineup would be thoroughly dismantled after the tournament and rebuilt around mid-laner Søren “Bjergsen” Bjerg.
Deficio remains baffled by NA’s spiral in that second week. “It's so crazy that a region managed to pick up wins in the first week and then go 0-10 in the next. Like, no matter how bad you are, that is actually crazy. You shouldn't have been able to win in the first place if you go 0-10.”
For Europe’s part, even though Fnatic had come into Worlds as an 18-0 juggernaut, the team only snuck out of Groups by the narrowest of margins. To get to the Knockout Stages, Fnatic had to prevail in their final Group Stage match against ahq e-Sports Club. The resulting match proved to be an all-time classic.
The game ended up being a 50-minute slugfest with almost as many kills combined, and Fnatic’s hopes of advancing seemed almost completely snuffed out. Their base lay in shambles with two inhibitors down as Westdoor’s Zed engaged the final teamfight to close out the game. Febiven wasn’t ready to give up just yet, pouncing onto the enemy team and executing Leblanc’s W-Q combo for all the damage of a tactical nuke, deleting ahq’s Jinx and Tahm Kench instantly.
Late-game death timers sitting at well over a minute, Fnatic pushed down the mid lane as five, using Elise’s spiderlings to tank turret aggro on their way to ahq’s Nexus, executing one of the most unlikely comeback in Worlds history, and with so much at stake. If they had lost that game, Fnatic would have exited Groups in a disappointing repeat of 2014. “Ahq versus Fnatic was one of the highlights of that entire tournament for me,” says Quickshot. “With so much on the line, it was absolutely mind-boggling and so compelling to watch.”
The ahq squad Fnatic aced in that last crucial teamfight was no push-over. They’d shown up big all through the Group Stages and made a valiant last stand in the Quarters alongside fellow LMS representatives, Flash Wolves. Ahq’s mid-laner Westdoor had solo-killed Faker under tower. The team’s AD Carry AN played one of the meanest Jinxes in the entire tournament, nabbing an insane quadrakill against Cloud9 for his personal highlight reel. Despite hitting a wall in Quarters, Taiwan had proven itself a region that demanded respect.
“Fnatic had to win that last game against ahq,” says Deficio, marvelling at the result even a year after casting the game in Paris. “Febiven getting that triple kill and then rushing up mid. Fnatic was about to drop out of Groups. Then winning that game forced C9 into a tiebreaker with ahq that got played right after, in which ahq beat C9 so ahq and Fnatic made it out. And Fnatic even made it out as a first seed. That one play, that one moment with Febiven decided everything for Fnatic.”
KING OF THE WORLD
While Europe and Taiwan vied for respectability during the Group Stages and quarterfinals, SKT T1 played only for supremacy. In fact, Korea's No. 1 seed looked wholly untouchable. When Faker locked in mid-lane Olaf during one of their games against the Bangkok Titans, the pick almost seemed like a troll. As if he’d reached into his pocket, found a piece of lint and said, ‘eh, that’ll do against these guys’ (Faker would go 8/2/8 on the Olaf, as it happens). But it wasn’t just doe-eyed, out-of-their-depth Wildcard teams that SKT dunked on. They didn’t lose a single game until the Finals, when KOO Tigers stole one game after an early snowball by Lee "hojin" Ho-Jin's Lee Sin. SKT didn’t so much as watch one of their tier-2 turrets crumble until their first game of the Semifinals in Brussels.
With Europe hosting Worlds 2015, local fans packing out each of the venues hoped against hope that this might be their home region’s year to challenge Korea for global dominance. And having not one but two EU squads coming into the Semifinals made the dream of making it to the Finals feel tantalizingly close. Chances like this don’t come along often, and especially not with the added bonus of a home-crowd advantage gusting at your back. Origen actually looked as though they might be able to close out Game 1, having cracked the perimeter of SKT’s base off the back of a Baron take. But then Origen’s poise started to falter. Individual members started getting caught out and SKT wrested back control of the game, which visibly shattered the morale of the European hopefuls.
“If you start losing a game and you just lose it slowly, you feel bad but your mental strength is not broken completely,” says Origen’s xPeke. “You know the mistakes. Ok I died to this guy, this guy got fed and they just snowballed slowly and there was nothing to do. But in [that first game against SKT] you think, ok, we got a good gank off early, we got a good call, we managed to do a Nashor and take them by surprise. When you're making all these good plays that came to your mind and worked out, and in the end you just throw it all because of some mistakes, it actually breaks you completely. Because your mentality changes a lot and you think, ok, if we didn't manage to win doing everything we practiced right, how are we going to win if things go worse the next game? At the same time, SKT was way better than us, so it was obvious that it would go worse after the first game.”
He’s right on that count. Things did go much worse. European fans in the Brussels crowd would be forced to watch Games 2 and 3 through splayed fingers, half covering their eyes at the carnage.
“We were just receiving the punches and kind of waiting for it to finish,” says xPeke. “Because at that point you run out of ideas when it always comes to your mind that it doesn't matter what you do, even if you get ahead these guys are still going to play the game right. That's what happened. Like I said, in every game, we go into it trying to play our game and remain confident. But when we lost the first game, we were not confident in our game anymore. It gets harder because you don't know clearly what the best way to win is anymore.”
For xPeke, that Game 1 throw to SKT felt like it had the exact opposite effect of the team’s upset victory over the much-hyped LGD at the start of Groups. Origen’s mentality hinged greatly on how much belief they had in their ability to win. When that belief faltered, they started to sink fast. SKT went on to clean-sweep Origen in a lopsided 3-0.
Fnatic had the marginally easier Semifinals opponent, but even they got thoroughly taken apart by the KOO Tigers. European casters Quickshot and Deficio share a similar sense of frustration and disappointment over Fnatic’s semifinals collapse.
“I hate Fnatic for what happened in Game 1 against the Tigers,” says Deficio. “Go back and look at the play 16 minutes in where they dive the bot lane tower after having an advantage early. Reignover flashes back in under tower. It's terribly executed and they give up three kills to Kassadin and then lose from there. After being ahead in the first game and then going on to lose, they obviously just completely crash. Talk about tilt, mental fatigue, they just weren't good enough. They crashed out of it. They couldn't outplay the Tigers. Huni tried to 1v1 Smeb in every situation and lost the 1v1s. That first game, Fnatic should have been able to win that first game. But when they screwed up at the bot-lane tower and lost the game, every other play from there for the entire series, it felt like Fnatic was done, they were outmatched, outplayed by KOO Tigers.”
“I wish I knew what the cause was,” add Quickshot. “Maybe they tried so hard to win that they crumbled under their own eagerness, as opposed to just playing with a level head.”
If anything the Fnatic-KOO series provided yet another showcase for KOO’s top-laner Smeb to cement his superstar status. Over and over again, Huni would go in to try and make a ballsy play, even in low-percentage situations, whereas Smeb patiently awaited his window of advantage before striking. “Smeb made it clear that he's a god-tier best top-laner in the world,” says Deficio, “because he could both have the mechanical skin of Huni and the aggression but he could also have the brain to say, ok I don't need to go aggressive, this is how I win this match-up, this is how I'll play this situation. He had the full package. Huni was outmatched… I think, had the Tigers won the tournament, Smeb would’ve gotten MVP over MaRin.”
As hungry as many spectators and analysts were to see Korea humbled at Worlds 2015, SKT had no interest in ceding the crown or having its dynastic control over professional League broken up. “People expected that China would show up big time, Europe would send in Fnatic, and these teams would show that the Korean teams could lose,” says Deficio. “And then it just became a story of China crashing out, Europe getting shut out by Korea in a pair of 3-0 Semfinals, followed by SKT also winning the Finals. And it was like, nevermind, the gap isn't closing. It was the same as always. So it's almost this sad thing where some of the hype for international tournaments always gets killed a little bit because you feel like you can predict the winner just based on where they're from.”
That’s not to say that Korea can’t have its own underdog stories. The KOO Tigers, who would ultimately play the David to SKT’s Goliath in the 2015 World Championship Finals, cobbled together their roster in 2014 largely from players that had washed out of reputable organizations such as NaJin Sword and NaJin Shield. Yet within the span of a year they had managed to secure the No. 2 Korean seed in Worlds 2015, garnering the most circuit points in LCK regional play.
Unfortunately for KOO, they’ve been dogged by a history of fumbling in tournament play after crushing all comers in regular-season competition. They’d choked at the Intel Extreme Masters earlier in the year, churning out in the Semis to World Elite who’d entered the tournament as the 12th-place team in China’s LPL. At different stages in the 2015 LCK season, KOO would lose key playoff matches to both SKT T1 and KT Rolster. “I can't shake this feeling that KOO are the perfect team until Finals and somehow just lose this magical ability,” says Quickshot, “because there are very few teams who've made it to this many Finals and then tripped over themselves.”
Despite dropping its only game of the entire tournament to KOO Tigers in the Finals, SKT T1 would lay claim the Summoner’s Cup without much difficulty, dazzling a sold-out crowd in Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Arena. In doing so, Faker would become one of the first two players, along with teammate Bengi, to win a pair of Worlds titles, cementing his legacy as the most gifted player in the history of the sport. Executing a stylish forward tumble during the opening ceremonies of the Finals in Berlin, he even proved to the world that there was a fun-loving guy tucked beneath all that granite toughness he displayed on the Rift. Maybe the gap in regional power wasn’t yet closing, but it’s hard to resist rooting for a team like SKT T1 that makes winning look so damn good.